Published in the Sunday Times
It must have been Murder on the Orient Express that did it. I found the book, along with a half-eaten Crunchie, on my mother’s bedside table. It was Tuesday afternoon and my mother was at an Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereeniging meeting, planning a church bazaar or something. I was alone at home, 13 and bored. Killer combination – as was chocolate and murder.
I picked up the Crunchie and finished it, absently reading the first paragraph. Outside the August winds were blowing up smothering clouds of dust. But I was oblivious. I was being led down a path from which there was no return.
My English was limited at the time, but reading with a dictionary in my lap was a small price to pay. Soon I was raiding the town’s modest library, hunting for more books by Agatha Christie – particularly those with Hercule Poirot. I loved his eccentric cockiness, waxing his moustache and beginning each day with a cup of hot, dark chocolate.
In high school I cast the net wider, exploring poetry and plays and essays – Antjie Krog and Adam Small, Guy de Maupassant, Tennessee Williams and Athol Fugard. After school came the romantic years – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell – and the more philosophical: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert M Pirsig).
But whether I was ploughing through Hermann Hesse or JRR Tolkien, I kept returning to my first love, relishing not only the nail-biting plotlines of detective stories, but also the quirks of the main characters. There was the philosophical Inspector Bucket (Charles Dickens), one of the first true detectives of literature and, of course, the opium addict Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). I never liked Miss Marple much. Agatha Christie entrenched the female stereotype by creating this old dear, relying on gossip and knitting in order to solve crime.
70 years later came the kick-ass Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson). Everything about her spells trouble, from being a computer hacker to her goth look and her battle with anorexia. She turned the typical literary sleuth on its head.
Talking of turning things on their heads: another unforgettable character was Brother William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. He’s a Franciscan friar who arrives at a monastery in 1327 and is tasked with solving the suspicious deaths of a number of monks. Umberto Eco turned the classic detective novel inside out in that “very little is discovered and the detective is defeated”. But in reality the book explores the Inquisition, philosophy, biblical analysis and literary theory.
I love the conventional detectives, like Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) and Easy Rawlings (Walter Mosley) and especially Joe O’Laughlin, the shrink with Parkinson’s, to name but a few. But it will always be the more eccentric ones that will keep me exploring the genre, like George Smiley in the spy thrillers of John le Carré. Or Miss Smilla, Peter Høeg’s one-book character, who tried to make sense of her own Inuit heritage, Denmark’s colonial history and the death of a young boy through her exceptional knowledge of snow.
For them I’ll do murder. Easily. Always.